Wind turning heads in Alabama: turbines next?

Guest Blog | January 25, 2013 | Energy Policy, Wind
Photo Courtesy of NREL

Onshore wind power can work and be profitable in Alabama. That’s according to Pioneer Green Energy, the experienced wind energy developer behind the Shinbone Wind Energy Center proposed near Gadsden, in northeastern Alabama. The project will sell 18.4 MW of electric capacity to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), roughly equivalent to 1/2 of the total electricity used by homes in the county where the project is located.

Shinbone wind is estimated to bring in $200,000 to $300,000 a year in tax revenues to Cherokee County, a rural area home to about 26,000 people, 20.8% of whom are below the poverty level (compared to 14.3% nationally and 17.6% in Alabama). On top of that, an economic impact study from Jacksonville State University (download PDF) indicated that the project could draw additional tourist dollars to the area.

It’s an exciting development for a state, and a region, that benefits from wind manufacturing (download fact sheet here). It may also challenge the outdated notion that wind energy is not a viable resource in Alabama. 

What’s making the difference? Partially, encouraging results from Pioneer’s on-site wind measurements over the last few years that indicate higher wind speeds than standard models predicted. And additionally, the onward march of wind technology that can now effectively harness the more moderate wind speeds we experience in the southeast. Some of these technological improvements in wind turbines include lighter blades, taller towers, and drivetrain enhancements (e.g. lighter weight gearboxes).

The project will bolster the local economy through tax revenues and construction and operation jobs, while protecting air and water. The community won’t be asked to trade its environmental health for much-needed economic development (learn more about environmental justice). Cherokee County won’t have to make that choice here: unlike coal, wind turbines do not threaten local communities with sulfur dioxide, soot, mercury, and other toxins that damage lungs and brains. Nor do they guzzle water like coal and nuclear plants, which use about 2.5 billion gallons a year of precious surface water in Alabama, according to government data collected by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Wind turbines also emit zero carbon dioxide emissions as they generate electricity.

Of course, it’s important to site any generation facility properly to minimize its impacts on the surrounding area. Pioneer Green Energy is awaiting results of environmental assessments to ensure it doesn’t impact local wildlife, including bats, and is also conducting studies on noise, “flicker” of turbine blade shadows, and a visual representation of how the turbines will look along the ridge, so that nearby residents can understand whether and how the project will affect them.

We’ll keep you updated on this potential game-changer as the studies come in!

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